There’s no doubting that Aurelio Martinez of Honduras is the reigning king of Garifuna roots music. Ever since the death of pioneering maestro Andy Palacio in 2008, Aurelio—already a brilliant composer, performer and recording artist at the time—has blossomed to fill a gaping hole in the hearts of all who love Caribbean music. Aurelio’s fourth album, a live studio session recorded at Real World Studio in the U.K., is perhaps his most direct and passionate work to date. It revisits songs from his three well-crafted studio albums with energy and spontaneity rare in any live recording.
The combo backing Aurelio here is stripped down and superb, with nothing extra. Two Garifuna drummers define the rhythm section with nimble, percolating grooves that flow through these 12 mostly up-tempo tracks. Lead guitarist Guayo Cedeno’s precise and melodious picking is prominent in the mix, whether in luminous quavering riffs close to Hawaiian lap steel, or in the punchy twang of propulsive, low-end riffs reminiscent of Duane Eddy. There are funny echoes of country Americana in Garifuna music, especially evident in this guitar-centric format, with Aurelio’s deft nylon-string fingerpicking subtly underpinning the mix. Cedeno’s solos and accompaniments are consistently tasty, deeply in tune with the songs’ brisk arrangements and arresting vocal performances.
Aurelio’s searing solo voice is fittingly the star here, exuding clarity and moral authority track after track, no translation needed. On “Yalifu,” a wistful ode to a pelican—“Pelican, lend me your wings”—he perfectly mimics the tone of a muted trumpet. On “Dugu,” a song about ceremonies honoring Garifuna ancestors, Aurelio begins singing alone, his voice nearly breaking with emotion before the band sweeps in like a stiff wind to carry him forth. New reads on Aurelio classics like “Laru Beya” and “Landini”—both love songs to the sea, tinged with heartbreak and sadness—hold up well without all the embellishments and guest appearances featured on the original recordings. In fact, the simplicity and directness of these live band performances takes these songs out of the realm of pop music, revealing them as rugged folk songs bound to endure for anyone with connections to Garifuna culture.
The Garifuna peoples’ unique history of descent from shipwrecked African slaves and embattled Arawak Indians is beautifully presented in the album booklet, one of the most impressive packages of the year so far. The text is written by Afropop Worldwide veteran producer Marlon Bishop, and evocative graphics include photographs of young Aurelio finding his artistic voice on the beaches of Honduras. Garifuna songs are filled with stories of loss, death, nostalgia and longing. This is an embattled people, marginalized in their Central American nations and overwhelmed by foreign influences. For Aurelio, a central life mission is to preserve Garifuna language and culture. It is hard to imagine any more powerful way to achieve that end than through the timeless songs so powerfully rendered on this album.